Expert tips for stunning photography at night
Shooting at night is a wonderful opportunity to catch the moody atmosphere of thousands of artificial light sources, especially city lights, neon signs and so on. However, with opportunity come a few things to consider. When dealing with low light situations, depending on your camera and equipment, there are a few decisions you have to make, and a few things you need to know, before you start.
As a general rule, it is safe to say, low light requires long exposure times, so enough light can hit your camera sensor for the photo to be sufficiently exposed. However, modern cameras tend to get better and better with handling low light. It is important to understand and know what your camera is capable of, to make the right decisions for your shot. Before you shoot serious photos at night you should test up to which ISO setting your camera produces a decent image quality that satisfies your needs. Whereas older camera models start producing unbearable noise at around 400 ISO, modern and expensive DSLRs can be turned up to 8000 or even 16.000 ISO without excessively noticeable grain. This can significantly lower your exposure times. Depending on that, you will either be able to shoot handheld or be required to use a tripod, whereas using the latter is generally the recommended option for any shutter speed below 1/80 of a second or 1/50 if you have a very steady hand. This is a general reference for a 50mm focal length. If you are using a 200mm zoom you should use a tripod for anything below 1/200 of a second already.
This being said bear in mind that whereas handheld shooting makes you quick and agile in urban jungles, long exposure times can give you brilliant artistic effects, such as light streaks from passing cars, and generally add a more subtle, calm and surreal look to your photography. Therefore carry a tripod whenever you can, and don’t miss out on a perfect opportunity to create something brilliant. The smoothing effect of longer exposures is especially notable on water surfaces like river banks and beaches. The longer you expose, the smoother they get. Very long exposure times of multiple seconds can also wipe out fast moving pedestrians and make busy places appear more deserted, which is a thing you might want to use to make your shot look more visually appealing and intriguing. As with all photographic endeavours, patience is key!
Shot handheld walking along Las Vegas Boulevard, and via helicopter.
Using aperture priority mode is your best shot when shooting at night. This enables you to setup everything—except shutter speed—and has your camera calculate the appropriate exposure time. Don’t ever use automatic mode! It might crank up your ISO speed so high, you will get grain.
Last but not least: When shooting at night, or in any difficult light situations, it is important to utilize the full quality of your camera’s sensor by shooting in raw, rather than using the JPEG file format. We will explicitly cover the benefits of shooting in raw in a later blog article.
Grab your camera, go and create!
Long time exposure of South Bank London, using a tripod.